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Santa Rosa clears Industrial Drive homeless encampment

Jacob Grant gripped a cup of coffee as the sun came up Tuesday on Industrial Drive in northwest Santa Rosa. The 43-year-old, born in Alaska and raised in Napa County, had just finished folding his tent and he was trying to figure out where to go next.

Grant was one of roughly 50 people living on Industrial Drive, a commercial spur north of Piner Road that for months has been the spot of one of Santa Rosa’s largest homeless encampments.

Just after 7 a.m., Grant was counting the minutes before Santa Rosa set about ordering him and his neighbors to find new places to pitch their tents. He chafed at the lack of options being offered to him, given his medical situation — he has suffered through cancer and hepatitis C. He was hoping for a roof, or short of that, a government-sanctioned campsite.

“I’ve done all their hoops,” said Grant, a former horse trainer who has been homeless for six years. “I’ve done all their paperwork.”

Jacob Grant prepares to leave his encampment on Industrial Drive as city crews begin to dismantle and clean the large camp, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Santa Rosa.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Jacob Grant prepares to leave his encampment on Industrial Drive as city crews begin to dismantle and clean the large camp, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Volunteers fanned out amid the collection of RVs, cars, tents and other makeshift dwellings, prodding occupants including Grant to get a move on. The city had announced days earlier a plan to clear the site early Tuesday.

A city worker hauling a backhoe on a flatbed trailer arrived shortly after 7 a.m. and set about undoing the chains to free the piece of heavy machinery, to be used in gathering heaps of discarded or abandoned belongings and debris. About 120 yards of trash and debris had been gathered by Tuesday afternoon, according to the city.

The enforcement action came after two shelved attempts to clear the camp dating back to December, both of which were held up due to COVID-19 outbreaks. It was the second major sweep within the city in a week, after the county cleared about 15 people and up to 20 tents off a section of the Joe Rodota Trail running from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol. The 2.5-mile trail segment reopened to the public on Friday.

The moves signaled the start of what has become an all-too-familiar cycle in recent years: authorities displace dozens of campers, who either move in to shelters or regroup elsewhere in and around Santa Rosa as authorities begin an extensive cleanup. Though campers are offered shelter space or similar temporary quarters, they are not obligated to accept.

Encampments are a common sight in Santa Rosa, which has one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness among suburban communities in the nation, according to statistics kept by the federal government. Sonoma County’s latest homeless count found up to 562 chronically homeless individuals in the city, where many major homeless service providers operate.

The Industrial Drive camp is in the district of Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, who drove by Tuesday once clearing efforts were underway to scope out the situation.

Schwedhelm, a retired Santa Rosa police chief, has been a leading figure in homeless outreach since he first joined the council in 2014. “Anytime you need a backhoe to help with the cleanup, that’s an issue,” he said.

Schwedhelm said Santa Rosa remains committed to bolstering services for homeless residents, including the temporary living space it can provide for more than 200 people at Samuel L. Jones Hall, the city shelter that is the largest of its kind in Sonoma County. He acknowledged that many displaced from unsanctioned camps do not take the city up on its offer of shelter space. Providing other options and requested help isn’t always possible.

“We’re working on it,” Schwedhelm said, adding that the city and its unsheltered residents needed to “meet each other at the right place.”

“We can’t force anyone to accept services if they’re not at a point in their life where they can accept that help,” Schwedhelm said. It may take time, he added, but “I’m confident and hopeful that they will say yes and will allow us to help us help them.”

Of the estimated 50 to 60 people living in the encampment, 31 sat down with outreach workers and drew up plans to transition out of the encampment, and 27 have accepted shelter placements, according to city data. Nineteen campers are set to stay at Sam Jones, with five going to individual living arrangements and three others with shelter placements pending.

No arrests were made and two vehicles were towed Tuesday, according to city staff. It was not immediately clear how many vehicles were towed from the encampment prior to Tuesday’s enforcement action.

Jennifer Stroude, 40, who has been homeless for three decades, had been camping in the Industrial Drive area in an RV, but that had been towed a few weeks ago. She said she didn’t have the $175 to get her vehicle out of impound. So her space was the hub of activity Tuesday morning, as volunteers piled her possessions onto a rickety-looking trailer — one helper went as far as tightening new lug nuts on one of the wheels.

Stroude, who is originally from Yreka and goes by “Angel” because of her willingness to help others, didn’t know where she and her belongings would wind up at the end of the day. She said she doesn’t feel comfortable in shelters. The rules feel overbearing and fellow occupants are often unwell, leaving her feeling vulnerable to illness.

Watching people help her get ready to move to parts unknown, she sat on a curb and seemed to curl herself into a ball. Tears came quickly when she was asked what the help she needed would look like: “A friend who wouldn’t tell you they were going to help you, and then not help.”

Jennifer 'Angel' Stroude throws out what she doesn't have room for in a trailer as a city cleanup sweep begins on Industrial Drive. in Santa Rosa at a large homeless encampment, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Stroude's motor home was impounded, so she had to offload the contents of the vehicle and set up camp. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Jennifer 'Angel' Stroude throws out what she doesn't have room for in a trailer as a city cleanup sweep begins on Industrial Drive. in Santa Rosa at a large homeless encampment, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Stroude's motor home was impounded, so she had to offload the contents of the vehicle and set up camp. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Tuesday’s clearance follows new city restrictions on overnight parking in the area of Industrial Drive. By banning parked, occupied vehicles from the area at night in mid-February, authorities gave themselves a tool to effectively reduce the size and population of the RV-heavy encampment.

Like most encampments on public ground in Santa Rosa, the Industrial Drive site was broken up under the limits of a 2019 court order that requires authorities to offer campers alternatives for living space and storage for their belongings. The order remains in effect through June after advocates and local government officials agreed in December to an extension.

The city paused encampment enforcement in the first few months after the COVID-19 pandemic began a year ago. But after dozens of people took up residence below Highway 101 in several downtown underpasses — leading to dangerously unsanitary living conditions — the city resumed its enforcement program, displacing campers under the highway as well as subsequent clusters in Fremont Park, along railroad tracks north of College Avenue and along the Prince Memorial Greenway near Olive Park.

Spring plum blossom trimmings are left behind as residents clear out from a homeless encampment on Industrial Drive in Santa Rosa, Tuesday, March 2, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Spring plum blossom trimmings are left behind as residents clear out from a homeless encampment on Industrial Drive in Santa Rosa, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Santa Rosa typically spends about $3.5 million a year on its homeless services programming but has dramatically ramped up spending during the pandemic. On top of existing programs, the city’s spending on homelessness from March 2020 to June 2021 is estimated at about $10.3 million, including $3.1 million for a recent expansion at Sam Jones Hall.

The city had planned to clear the Industrial Drive encampment twice before, but COVID-19 outbreaks derailed both preceding attempts — first at Sam Jones in late December, and then at the encampment itself in early February.

The camp went without sanitary facilities such as portable toilets, hand-washing stations or dumpsters. Providing such necessities could imply approval of the illegal encampment, officials have said, and City Hall has signaled it does not have the resources to provide that equipment.

In addition to shelter space at Sam Jones Hall, camp residents were offered rooms at the Sandman Hotel on Cleveland Avenue, where the city has rented dozens of rooms during the pandemic, said Kelli Kuykendall, the city’s homeless services manager. The state has indicated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse up to 100% of such hotel rental costs incurred by local governments through September 2021.

The City Council in February discussed setting up safe overnight parking sites across the city to accommodate up to 100 spots, but that effort has yet to get underway, pending a search for "resources to implement these programs,“ Kuykendall said.

Nearby businesses in the Industrial Drive area have endured some problems and other negative fallout from the camp.

Nancy Alcott, executive director of the nearby Lattice Educational Services, a private, state-certified school serving children with disabilities and operating a preschool, recalled that she once asked a woman to keep her distance from Lattice while its programs were in session and was verbally assaulted and threatened with physical violence in response.

On a daily basis, it’s common to find needles, drug paraphernalia, feces and trash, all of which need to be picked up before 30 to 50 children arrive, Alcott said. She’s glad the encampment is being cleared after months of proximity to her school.

“People would come on our campus, and they wouldn’t leave,” Alcott said, noting that her facility liked to take their children on walks during the day, especially during COVID-19. “It will be really nice for us to be able to access our sidewalks again.”

Before heading out Tuesday in search of moving help and traveling companions, Grant, the former horse trainer, expressed frustration about how he’s been perceived by members of the public who don’t take the time to understand his situation, including health problems and past substance abuse issues.

“People assume that I choose this lifestyle,” Grant said, sharing his coffee with one neighbor and deflecting a search for drugs from another. “I fight every day to figure out if I’m going to find a job or go to the doctor’s office.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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